We nibble at the sandwiches and make stilted conversation with one another’s better halves. The managers loom in the corner.
This feels like injusticeThe winner has already been decided
In the face of unprecedented climate changewe must make sacrifices for future generations
There is a certain respect that should be afforded the dead
DarlingDarling, of course we respect the dead. We only ask that they respect us in return.
We’re behindI must apologizeYou know how I can get. I have too much passion
You’re doing a good jobYou are a good employee.
The plate he puts in front of me contains some sort of pasta, layered with cheeses, tomatoes, avocado, a lean sort of chicken. My stomach is sensitive to the rich foods he insists on making, but I find his effort commendable, so I do not complain. As I drag my fork across the plate, attempting to disguise how little I’ve eaten, Fish asks how work is going.
It’s fine, I say. I have never feared death the way I do now.
Around a mouthful of chicken, he says, I have never truly feared death. It’s . . . he trails off, searching for the word, hands clutching at the air. It’s inevitable.
It’s not that I haven’t accepted that. I am in the process of building an elaborate structure out of pasta. But I feel like I will become an object, someone’s property. Does that make sense?
Fish smiles and my mind scrambles. You think too much. Eyeing my plate, he says, Are you gonna finish that?
The water cooler is an oasis in the center of the office. We gather around it as often as we can to spread gossip and fawn over Mabel’s new baby pictures.
In the afternoon, Antoinette, the new intern, is asking everyone about the election. I avoid such topics in the workplace because I disagree with the traditionalist leanings of most Company employees, but I am inevitably drawn into the discussion.
Henry thinks the challenger doesn’t have enough experience to govern. Mary wants to see a woman in office. Mabel, who has successfully applied for exemption status in every election, says that her son has started to crawl. Antoinette turns to me, saying, And you? What do you think? The others follow suit.
The Governor is fine, but he has flaws, I say. I’m unsure. Did you hear that his opponent is getting donations from anti-Company interests?
The managers stroll by, their step in unison. They do not so much as glance at us. It is difficult not to feel like an insect in their presence, a minor inconvenience, otherwise unworthy of acknowledgement.
That means she has spark, Antoinette continues. Ambition, verve, whatever.
Henry says, Why fix that which isn’t broken?
Allison, whose hair is down today, intrudes upon the conversation. We expect her to break it up, but instead she begins praising the Governor. You wouldn’t have jobs if it weren’t for him, she says. He was a member of the Company’s executive board. He supports our policies.
Thus derailed, we return to our cubicles, where we stare at our keyboards and the hours fade into one another.
I return from work early one afternoon to find my lover paralyzed on the floor. His pulse is nonexistent. I place my ear to his chest and rap my knuckles against him. The sound echoes through his body, as if it were hollow.
I sit on the floor next to him, overcome. Death may be my object of study, but it is not my practice. Who does one call upon finding a corpse? Paramedics? There doesn’t seem much of a point. What could I possibly say to the authorities, that I just found him like this?
As I am collating what I think might be a viable statement, Fish opens his eyes. I gasp and stroke his face, but he remains unresponsive. What’s wrong, I say. His eyes are trained on the ceiling, his body frigid.
I place my ear to his chest and rap my knuckles against him. The sound echoes through his body, as if it were hollow.
Over the course of the next few days, I learn how to live in our house with its refurbished occupant. He no longer speaks or moves of his own volition. Occasionally, his eyes follow me as I cross a room, and with enough prodding he will walk in a straight line, but otherwise he may as well be a corpse.
I do not tell anyone. I do not want him taken away from me.
An ambulance is called to the office and everyone is in an uproar. The ambulance is for Gregory, who had been Employee of the Hour for ninety-three consecutive hours. He was well on his way into the ninety-fourth before suffering a nervous breakdown. I am silently thankful for the Company-provided healthcare (which is limited to only sponsored clinics and pharmacies).
Allison does not cancel that afternoon’s meeting. As we file in, listless, worried, she drones on about quotas and the creation of supplementary material for the extant supplementary material. She points to Mary, who is a close friend of Gregory’s and hasn’t stopped weeping. You, Allison says. You, darling. You’re behind. Where are your deliverables? Why can’t you be more like Greg?
Once in a while the thought of returning home after my shift is too much to bear. I nurse drinks in bars until the hour is late or I find a man to go home with me. Fish lies catatonic on one side of the bed while I complete my business on the other.
The sex is hurried and unremarkable. Whenever I catch a visitor glancing at my lover, I turn their face back toward me. He likes to watch, I say.
After they leave, I hold Fish, place my hand on his cheek. My apologies fall unheard.
Sometimes I arrange Fish on the couch so that I can lie on him comfortably. I wrap his arm around me and he is cold and limp. I have long since given up attempting to produce a reaction from him. We lie in this position for hours, until my back hurts or I have some errand to attend to. Until I readjust him, Fish will remain where he is, seemingly at peace.
Allison is out from work at a Company-wide conference. Mechanically, we go to the conference room at the allotted hour and sit there in silence for a while. Idlers scoot back and forth in their chairs, the wheels protesting. Mabel begins humming an inane children’s song. Minutes pass until we realize our foolishness, and even then we waste more time in there until our unfinished tasks beckon us once more.
Later, Henry makes us dinner reservations to celebrate Allison’s absence. I have not gone out with people since the onset of my present circumstances. Each day, I leave Fish at home with a bottle of water and a plate of saltine crackers, which I invariably find are removed of their corners upon my return.
At the restaurant, Henry institutes a “no Company-talk” rule, and the conversation quickly dries up. Mabel tells a story about her baby and the rest of us do not pay attention. Antoinette is somehow intoxicated before the food arrives. Someone asks Mary how Greg is doing, and her eyes water.
I look at these people around me and realize I do not know them, do not care about them. Without the foundation of a lover to return to, my world is thrown into stark relief. There is work and there is home, and each feels equally isolating. I struggle through the rest of the meal and take my leave at the first opportunity.
It is Bring Your Lover to Work Day and I am keeping Fish stowed under my desk, where he will not cause a disturbance. Occasionally I offer him snacks, and he takes them and chews quietly. I have found myself believing that he enjoys the simple act of grinding his teeth.
Allison brings her lover to every cubicle and introduces him to every employee. He is an average man with average teeth. He crouches and attempts to greet Fish, whose glazed eyes do not register his presence. Allison drags her lover away, apologizing profusely.
For lunch, the Company puts out Company-branded cold cut sandwiches and Company-branded soft drinks. We nibble at the sandwiches, which are soggy, and make stilted conversation with one another’s better halves. The managers loom in the corner, a dark monolith. I focus on pivoting all conversation away from Fish, whose hand I have fashioned into a claw and attached to my sleeve.
He’s shy, I say.
After a while, Allison begins making a speech. Allison operates as if the sole component of her job description is to make speeches. She launches into a lengthy sermon on our current project, market analyses, profit estimates. She singles me out for praise, and I demur. Work had simply become an outlet for me, an escape. The consensus is that we’re ahead of schedule. Soon the ad campaign will go into production. Allison smiles an honest smile. I flinch.
Without the foundation of a lover to return to, my world is thrown into stark relief.
Afterward, as some of my coworkers begin to filter out, the managers beckon me. We’ve heard great things about you, they say. Wonderful things. You are the new Employee of the Hour.
I mumble my thanks, tug at the hand affixed to my sleeve. Fish is distracted by the leftover food. The managers stop us. We’d like to show our gratitude. They make a broad gesture with their many hands, then lean in close. Your lover looks delicious.
I can’t say I disagree. I want to say I am massively uncomfortable. Fish has snagged some chips, and the grinding of his teeth is indecent.
The managers don’t seem to notice. We would like for him to star in the new marketing campaign. He would make a wonderful corpse.
Again, I am compelled to agree, for two reasons: the first one being the truth in their statement, and the second being that disagreement with the managers is an inadvisable course of action. I already know that I have lost Fish to them. They continue speaking, laying out the terms of the arrangement, but I am watching the way his mouth opens, how food is deposited, the way it is consumed, mechanical, automatic.
Time passes and I am in a trance-like state. Fish has not yet been returned to me. Allison holds meetings in the conference room to congratulate us on our work, and this feels masturbatory. I snap at her and she takes it in stride. In my cubicle, the computer is a dull monochromatic blur, so I gaze at a picture of Fish and myself instead, from the time he took me backpacking in the mountains, in which he is caught midlaugh, bathed in light, tanned and glorious.
Time passes and Greg returns to work. The managers require that he comes and goes exactly on time. His productivity decreases.
Time passes and I accidentally start a fire while attempting to recreate one of Fish’s concoctions. I put it out myself, but a firefighter is still summoned by the alarm. He gives me a sympathetic look and tells me to be more careful.
Time passes and Allison is kinder to us. She brings us baked goods. The office atmosphere is jovial. Multiple parties are held, and when I say I am not attending, my coworkers tell me that they understand.
Time passes and my bed is too empty to sleep in alone.
Time passes and the mass-grave project is rolled out to astonishing success. Entire cemeteries are paved over almost immediately. The polls rise in the incumbent’s favor, and the Company’s stocks increase. We do not get bonuses.
Time passes and I return home one day to find the front door open. On the kitchen table there are two envelopes. One contains a note from my managers:
Thank you for letting us use your lover. We believe his talents greatly improved the final product, although we found hismanner indelicate.
He should yet remain in his original condition. We will contactyou should the need arise for the rendering of additional services.
You are a good employee.
The second envelope is labeled Immediate Action Required. In it are the electoral ballots I had requested upon the onset of Fish’s condition. Across the top of each ballot are the words EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS. I look at the lines upon which we are supposed to sign. A sound draws my attention outside, through the glass doors and into the backyard.
Fish is attempting to catch fireflies. As he secures each successive insect, he holds it briefly in his palms before releasing it. The setting sun paints the sky behind him, orange and pink. I feel a hollow pang somewhere to the left of my heart.
He inspects a firefly as it travels the length of his finger. For the first time since this ordeal began, I catch a glint of something in his eyes, some animal intelligence. His face turns up, he meets my gaze, and then the something is gone, as if it had never been there in the first place.